Portal:Opera/Selected article

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Portal:Opera/Selected article/1

Interior of Her Majesty's Theatre c. 1808

Her Majesty's Theatre is a West End theatre, located in the Haymarket, in the City of Westminster. The present building was designed by Charles J. Phipps and was constructed in 1897 for actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree, who established the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art at the theatre. In the early decades of the 20th century, Tree produced spectacular productions of Shakespeare and other classical works, and the theatre hosted premières by major playwrights such as George Bernard Shaw, J. M. Synge, Noel Coward and J. B. Priestley. Since World War I, the wide flat stage has made the theatre suitable for large-scale musical productions, and the theatre has specialised in hosting musicals. The theatre was established by architect and playwright John Vanbrugh, in 1705, as the Queen's Theatre. Legally, serious drama unaccompanied by music was forbidden in all but the two London patent theatres, and so this theatre quickly became an opera house. Between 1711 and 1739, more than 25 George Frederick Handel operas premièred here. In the early 19th century, the theatre hosted the opera company that was to move to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1847, and presented the first London performances of Mozart's La clemenza di Tito, Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni. It also hosted the Ballet of her Majesty's Theatre in the mid-19th century, before returning to hosting the London premières of such famous operas as Bizet's Carmen and Wagner's Ring Cycle.

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Agrippina (HMV 6) is an opera seria in three acts by George Frideric Handel, set to a libretto by Cardinal Vincenzo Grimani. The opera tells the story of Agrippina, the mother of Nero, as she plots the downfall of the Roman Emperor Claudius and the installation of her son as emperor. Agrippina premiered in Venice some time in December 1709 or January 1710; the date is usually given as the 26 December 1709. The cast consisted of some of the leading singers of the time in Northern Italy, such as Antonio Carli in the lead bass role. Stars Margherita Durastanti, who had recently sung the role of Mary Magdalene in Handel's La Resurrezione; and Diamante Scarabelli, whose great success at Bologna in the 1697 pasticcio Perseo inspired the publication of a volume of eulogistic verse entitled La miniera del Diamante, also performed. Written when Handel was just 24, Agrippina was one of his first operas, and demonstrated his assimilation of the Italian style of opera, after his time spent in Rome composing Italianate cantatas and absorbing the influence of Alessandro Scarlatti, whom he had met in the city.

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Gaetano Donizetti, the composer of L'ange de Nisida

L'ange de Nisida (The Angel of Nisida) is an opera semiseria in four acts by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti, from a libretto by Alphonse Royer and Gustave Vaëz. Parts of the libretto are considered analogous with the libretto for Giovani Pacini's Adelaide e Comingio, and the final scene is based on the François-Thomas-Marie de Baculard d'Arnaud play Les Amants malheureux, ou le comte de Comminges. Donizetti worked on the opera in the autumn of 1839—its final page is dated 27 December 1839. Because the subject matter involved the mistress of a Neapolitan king, and may thus have caused difficulties with the Italian censors, Donizetti decided that the opera should be presented in France. However, the theater company Donizetti contracted went bankrupt. L'ange was never performed and was reworked as La favorite in September 1840.

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Christoph Willibald Gluck

Orfeo ed Euridice (French version: Orphée et Eurydice; English translation: Orpheus and Eurydice) is an opera composed by Christoph Willibald Gluck based on the myth of Orpheus, set to a libretto by Ranieri de' Calzabigi. It belongs to the genre of the azione teatrale, meaning an opera on a mythological subject with choruses and dancing. The piece was first performed at Vienna in 1762. Orfeo ed Euridice is the first of Gluck's "reform" operas, in which he attempted to replace the abstruse plots and overly complex music of opera seria with a "noble simplicity" in both the music and the drama. Though originally set to an Italian libretto, Orfeo ed Euridice owes much to the genre of French opera, particularly in its use of accompanied recitative and a general absence of vocal virtuosity. Indeed, twelve years after the 1762 premiere, Gluck re-adapted the opera to suit the tastes of a Parisian audience at the Académie Royale de Musique. This reworking was given the title Orphée et Eurydice, and several alterations were made in vocal casting and orchestration to suit French tastes. The opera is the most popular of Gluck's works.

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The Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden where The Fairy-Queen was first performed.

The Fairy-Queen (Z.629) is a masque or semi-opera by Henry Purcell; a Restoration spectacular. It was first performed on 2 May 1692 at the Queen's Theatre, Dorset Garden, in London by the United Company. The libretto is an anonymous adaptation of William Shakespeare's wedding comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream. Presumably the author or at least co-author of the libretto is Thomas Betterton, the manager of Dorset Garden Theatre with whom Purcell worked regularly. This assumption is based on an analysis of Betterton's stage directions. A collaboration between several playwrights is also feasible. Choreography for the various dances was provided by Josias Priest, who also worked on Dioclesian and King Arthur, and who was associated with Dido and Aeneas. Purcell did not set any of Shakespeare's text to music; instead he composed music for short masques in every act but the first. The play itself was also slightly modernized in keeping with seventeenth-century dramatic conventions, but in the main the spoken text is as Shakespeare wrote it. The masques are related to the play metaphorically, rather than literally. Many critics have stated erroneously that they bear no relationship to the play, but recent scholarship has shown that the opera, which ends with a masque featuring Hymen, the god of marriage, was actually composed for the fifteenth wedding anniversary of William and Mary.

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The first Mélisande, Mary Garden

Pelléas et Mélisande (Pelléas and Mélisande) is an opera in five acts with music by Claude Debussy. The French libretto was adapted from Maurice Maeterlinck's Symbolist play Pelléas et Mélisande. It premiered at the Opéra-Comique in Paris on 30 April 1902 with Jean Périer as Pelléas and Mary Garden as Mélisande in a performance conducted by André Messager, who was instrumental in getting the Opéra-Comique to stage the work. The only opera that Debussy completed, it is considered a landmark in 20th-century music. The plot concerns a love triangle. Prince Golaud finds a mysterious young woman, Mélisande, lost in a forest. He marries her and brings her back to the castle of his grandfather, King Arkel of Allemonde. Here Mélisande becomes increasingly attached to Golaud’s younger half-brother Pelléas, arousing Golaud’s jealousy. Golaud goes to excessive lengths to find out the truth about Pelléas and Mélisande’s relationship, even forcing his own child, Yniold, to spy on the couple. Pelléas decides to leave the castle but arranges to meet Mélisande one last time and the two finally confess their love for one another. Golaud, who has been eavesdropping, rushes out and kills Pelléas. Mélisande dies shortly after, having given birth to a daughter, with Golaud still begging her to tell him "the truth".

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The Pirates of Penzance

The Pirates of Penzance, or The Slave of Duty, is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It remains popular today, taking its place along with The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore as one of the most frequently played Gilbert and Sullivan operas. Its 1981 Broadway revival by Joseph Papp ran for 787 performances and spawned many imitations. The Pirates of Penzance was the only Gilbert and Sullivan opera to have its official premiere in New York. At the time, American law offered no copyright protection to foreigners. After their previous opera, H.M.S. Pinafore, was a hit in London, over a hundred American companies quickly mounted unauthorized "pirated" productions, often taking considerable liberties with the text and paying no royalties to the creators. By mounting their next opera in New York, Gilbert and Sullivan hoped to forestall further "piracy" by establishing the official production in America before others could copy it. This proved successful in allowing them to get some of the profits; however, it failed to ever establish any actual copyright, and future operas would return to premièring in London. The creative period for Pirates was unusual, in that Sullivan composed the acts in reverse — bringing the completed Act II with him, with Act I existing only in sketches. When he arrived in New York, he found that he had left the sketches behind, and he had to reconstruct the first act from memory.

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H.M.S. Pinafore

H.M.S. Pinafore, or The Lass that Loved a Sailor is a comic opera in two acts, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It is one of the Savoy Operas, and the first big hit by Gilbert and Sullivan. It opened at the Opera Comique in London on May 25 1878 for a run of 571 performances, which was the second longest run of any musical theatre piece up to that time (after the operetta Les cloches de Corneville). H.M.S. Pinafore was Gilbert and Sullivan's fourth operatic collaboration. Drawing on several of his earlier "Bab Ballad" poems, Gilbert imbued H.M.S. Pinafore with mirth and silliness to spare. The opera's gentle satire reprises and builds on a theme introduced in The Sorcerer – love between members of different social classes. The opera also pokes good-natured fun at the Royal Navy and, in themes to be repeated in the later operas, parliamentary politics and the rise of unqualified people to positions of authority. The title of the work itself is humorous, as it juxtaposes the name of a little girl's garment, pinafore, with the symbol of a naval warship. The plot revolves around a naval captain's daughter who is in love with a lower-class foremast hand (a common sailor, well below officer rank), even though her father intends her to marry the First Lord of the Admiralty, the cabinet minister in charge of Britain's Royal Navy. As with most of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, a surprise twist changes matters dramatically near the end of the story.

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The Sorcerer

The Sorcerer is a two-act comic opera, with a libretto by W. S. Gilbert and music by Arthur Sullivan. It opened on November 17, 1877 at the Opera Comique in the Strand in London, where it ran for 178 performances. For the 1884 revival, Gilbert and Sullivan abridged the ending to Act I, and provided a new opening to Act II, and it is in this form that the work is usually presented today. The success of The Sorcerer, although modest, encouraged Carte and the authors to continue their collaboration the following year with H.M.S. Pinafore, the work that established the Gilbert and Sullivan phenomenon that produced one hit after another throughout the 1880s – the series known as the Savoy Operas. The opera was revived in 1884 and again in 1898. In the early years of the 20th century, however, it gradually fell out of favour. Between the mid-1930s and the early 1970s, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company did not perform it at all, and many amateur companies followed suit. A 1971 revival brought new life to the work, and it has now joined the regular rotation of most G&S performing groups.

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Trial by Jury

Trial by Jury is a comic opera in one act, with music by Arthur Sullivan and libretto by W. S. Gilbert. It was first produced on 25 March 1875, at London's Royalty Theatre, where it initially ran for 131 performances and was considered a hit, receiving critical praise and outrunning its popular companion piece, Jacques Offenbach's La Périchole. The story concerns a "breach of promise of marriage" lawsuit in which the judge and legal system are the objects of lighthearted satire. Gilbert based the libretto of Trial by Jury on an operetta parody that he had written in 1868. The opera premiered more than three years after Gilbert and Sullivan's only previous collaboration, Thespis, an 1871–72 Christmas season entertainment. In the intervening years, both the author and composer were busy with separate projects. Beginning in 1873, Gilbert tried several times to get the opera produced before the impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte suggested that he collaborate on it with Sullivan. Sullivan was pleased with the piece and promptly wrote the music. As with most Gilbert and Sullivan operas, the plot of Trial by Jury is ludicrous, but the characters behave as if the events were perfectly reasonable. This narrative technique blunts some of the pointed barbs aimed at hypocrisy, especially of those in authority, and the sometimes base motives of supposedly respectable people and institutions. The success of Trial by Jury launched the famous series of 13 collaborative works between Gilbert and Sullivan that came to be known as the Savoy Operas.

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Illustration of Thespis by D. H. Friston

Thespis is an operatic extravaganza that was the first collaboration between dramatist W. S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan. It was never published, and most of the music is now lost. However, Gilbert and Sullivan went on to become one of the most famous and successful partnerships in Victorian England, creating a string of comic opera hits, including H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado, that continue to be popular. Thespis premièred in London at the Gaiety Theatre on 26 December 1871. Like many productions at that theatre, it was written in a broad, burlesque style, considerably different from Gilbert and Sullivan's later works. It was a modest success—for a Christmas entertainment of the time—and closed on 8 March 1872, after a run of 63 performances. It was advertised as "An entirely original Grotesque Opera in Two Acts". The story follows an acting troupe headed by Thespis, the legendary Greek father of the drama, who temporarily trade places with the gods on Mount Olympus, who have grown elderly and ignored. The actors turn out to be comically inept rulers. Having seen the ensuing mayhem down below, the angry gods return, sending the actors back to Earth as "eminent tragedians, whom no one ever goes to see."

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Célestine Marié who created the role of Carmen

Carmen is an opera in four acts by the French composer Georges Bizet. The libretto was written by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. The opera was first performed at the Opéra-Comique in Paris, on 3 March 1875, and was not at first particularly successful; its initial run extended to 36 performances. Before this run was concluded, Bizet died suddenly, and thus knew nothing of the opera's later celebrity. Written in the genre of opéra comique, it tells the story of the downfall of Don José, a naive soldier who is seduced by the wiles of the fiery gypsy Carmen. José abandons his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his military duties, yet loses Carmen's love to the glamorous toreador Escamillo after which José kills her in a jealous rage. The depictions of proletarian life, immorality and lawlessness, and the tragic outcome in which the main character dies on stage, broke new ground in French opera and were highly controversial. After the premiere most reviews were critical, and the French public was generally indifferent. Carmen initially gained its reputation through a series of productions outside France, and was not revived in Paris until 1883; thereafter it rapidly acquired celebrity at home and abroad, and continues to be one of the most frequently performed operas; the "toreador's song" from Act 2 is among the best known of all operatic arias. Later commentators have asserted that Carmen forms the bridge between the tradition of opéra comique and the realism or verismo that characterised late 19th-century Italian opera.

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Royal Opera House

The Royal Opera House is an opera house and major performing arts venue in the London district of Covent Garden. The large building, often referred to as simply "Covent Garden", is the home of The Royal Opera, The Royal Ballet and the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Originally called the Theatre Royal, it opened in 1732 and served primarily as a playhouse for the first hundred years of its history. In 1734, the first ballet was presented, and a year later Handel's first season of operas began. Many of his operas and oratorios were specifically written for Covent Garden and had their premieres there. The current building is the third theatre on the site following disastrous fires in 1808 and 1857. The façade, foyer and auditorium date from 1858, but almost every other element of the present complex dates from an extensive reconstruction in the 1990s. The Royal Opera House seats 2,268 people and consists of four tiers of boxes and balconies and the amphitheatre gallery. The proscenium is 12.20 m wide and 14.80 m high. The main auditorium is a Grade 1 listed building.

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Porgy and Bess

Porgy and Bess is an opera with music by George Gershwin and libretto by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. It was based on Heyward's novel Porgy and the play of the same name that he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy. All three works deal with African American life in the fictitious Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1930s. Originally conceived by Gershwin as an "American folk opera", the work was first performed in various forms in the fall of 1935, but was not widely accepted in the United States as a legitimate opera until the late 1970s and 1980s: it is now considered part of the standard operatic repertoire. Porgy and Bess is also regularly performed internationally, and several recordings of the complete work, including Gershwin's cuts, have been made. "Summertime" is by far the best-known piece from the work, and countless interpretations of this and other individual numbers have also been recorded and performed. The opera is admired for Gershwin's innovative synthesis of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music idioms.

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The Rhinemaidens are the three water-nymphs (Rheintöchter or Rhine daughters) who appear in Richard Wagner's opera cycle Der Ring Des Nibelungen. Their individual names are Woglinde, Wellgunde and Flosshilde, although they are generally considered as a single entity and act together accordingly. Of the 34 characters in the Ring cycle, they are the only ones who do not originate in the Scandinavian Eddas. Other legends and myths on which Wagner drew, notably the Nibelungenlied, include stories that involve water-sprites (nixies) or mermaids, and it is likely that he created his Rhinemaidens from these sources. The key concepts associated with them in the Ring operas—their flawed guardianship of the Rhine gold, and the condition (renunciation of love) through which the gold could be stolen from them and transformed into a means of world power—are wholly Wagner's own invention, and are the elements that initiate and propel the entire drama. The Rhinemaidens are the first and the last characters to be seen in the operas, appearing both in the opening scene of Das Rheingold, and in the final climactic spectacle of Götterdämmerung when they rise from the Rhine waters to reclaim the ring from Brünnhilde's ashes. The various musical themes associated with the Rhinemaidens are regarded as among the most lyrical in the whole Ring cycle, bringing to it rare instances of comparative relaxation and charm. It is reported that Wagner played their famous lament at the piano on the night before he died in 1883.

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A portrait of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, aged 14, in Verona, 1770

Between 1769 and 1773 the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold made three Italian journeys. The first, an extended tour of 15 months, was financed by performances for the nobility and by public concerts, and took in the most important Italian cities. The later journeys were to Milan, for Wolfgang to complete operas that had been commissioned there on the first visit. Leopold had been employed since 1747 as a musician in the Archbishop of Salzburg's court, becoming deputy Kapellmeister in 1763; but he had also devoted much time to Wolfgang's and sister Nannerl's musical education. He took them on a "grand tour" between 1764 and 1766, and spent some of 1767 and most of 1768 with them in the imperial capital, Vienna. The children's performances had captivated audiences, especially early in these journeys; and they made a considerable impression on European society. By 1769 Nannerl had reached adulthood, but Leopold was anxious to continue 13-year-old Wolfgang's education in Italy, a crucially important destination for any young composer of the 18th century.

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Title page of Luzzaschi's Madrigali a uno, e'doi, e'tre' soprani

The concerto delle donne (lit. consort of ladies) was a group of professional female singers in the late Renaissance court of Ferrara, Italy, renowned for their technical and artistic virtuosity. The ensemble was founded by Alfonso II, Duke of Ferrara, in 1580 and was active until the court was dissolved in 1597. Giacomo Vincenti, a music publisher, praised the women as "virtuose giovani" (young virtuosas), echoing the sentiments of contemporaneous diarists and commentators. The origins of the ensemble lay in an amateur group of high-placed courtiers who performed for each other within the context of the Duke's informal musica secreta in the 1570s. The ensemble evolved into an all-female group of professional musicians, the concerto delle donne, who performed formal concerts for members of the inner circle of the court and important visitors. Their signature style of florid, highly ornamented singing brought prestige to Ferrara and inspired composers of the time.

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Parsifal in a painting by Hermann Hendrich

Parsifal is an opera, or music drama, in three acts by Richard Wagner. It is loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival, the medieval (13th century) epic poem of the Arthurian knight Parzival (Percival) and his quest for the Holy Grail. Wagner first conceived the work in April 1857 but it was not finished until twenty-five years later. It was to be Wagner's last completed opera and in composing it he took advantage of the particular sonority of his Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Parsifal was first produced at the second Bayreuth Festival on 26 July 1882 in a performance conducted by Hermann Levi. The Bayreuth Festival maintained an exclusive monopoly on Parsifal productions until 1903, when the opera was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Wagner preferred to describe Parsifal not as an opera, but as "ein Bühnenweihfestspiel" – "A Festival Play for the Consecration of the Stage". At Bayreuth a tradition has arisen that there is no applause after the first act of the opera.

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Boris Godunov

Boris Godunov is an opera by Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881). The work was composed between 1868 and 1874 in Saint Petersburg, Russia. It is Mussorgsky's only completed opera and is considered his masterpiece. Its subject is the Russian ruler Boris Godunov, who reigned as Tsar from 1598 to 1605. The libretto was written by the composer, and is based on the play of the same name by Aleksandr Pushkin, and on Nikolay Karamzin's History of the Russian State. The composer created two distinct versions. The Original Version of 1869 was not approved for production. Mussorgsky completed a Revised Version in 1872, and this version eventually received its first performance in 1874. The music is written in a uniquely Russian style, drawing on his knowledge of Russian folk music and rejecting the influence of German and Italian opera.

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Cover of The Bartered Bride score, 1919

The Bartered Bride (Czech: Prodaná nevěsta) is a comic opera in three acts by the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana, to a libretto by Karel Sabina. The opera is considered to have made a major contribution towards the development of Czech music. It was composed during the period 1863–66, and first performed at the Provisional Theatre, Prague, on 30 May 1866. Set in a country village and with realistic characters, it tells the story of how, after a late surprise revelation, true love prevails over the combined efforts of ambitious parents and a scheming marriage broker. The opera was not immediately successful, and was revised and extended in the following four years. In its final version, premiered in 1870, it gained rapid popularity and eventually became a worldwide success. Czech national opera until this time had been represented only by a number of minor, rarely performed works. This opera, Smetana's second, was part of his quest to create a truly Czech operatic genre. Smetana's musical treatment makes considerable use of traditional Bohemian dance forms such as the polka and furiant, although he largely avoids the direct quotation of folksong. He nevertheless created music which was accurately folk-like, and is considered by Czechs to be quintessentially Czech in spirit. The overture, often played as a concert piece independently from the opera, was, unusually, composed before almost any of the other music had been written.

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Poppea, represented in a 16th century painting

L'incoronazione di Poppea (SV 308, The Coronation of Poppea) is an Italian baroque opera comprising a prologue and three acts, first performed in Venice during the 1642–43 carnival season. The music, attributed to Claudio Monteverdi, is a setting of a libretto by Giovanni Francesco Busenello. One of the first operas to use historical events and people rather than classical mythology, it adapts incidents from the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius and others to recount how Poppea, mistress of the Roman emperor Nerone (Nero), is able to achieve her ambition and be crowned empress. The opera was revived in Naples in 1651, but was then neglected until the rediscovery of the score in 1888, after which it became the subject of scholarly attention in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Since the 1960s the opera has been performed and recorded many times. In a departure from traditional literary morality it is the adulterous liaison of Poppea and Nerone which triumphs, although this victory is demonstrated by history to have been transitory and hollow. Moreover, in Busenello's version of the story all the major characters are morally compromised. Written when the genre of opera was only a few decades old, the music for L'incoronazione di Poppea has been praised for its originality, its melody, and for its reflection of the human attributes of its characters. The work helped to redefine the boundaries of theatrical music, and established Monteverdi as the leading musical dramatist of his time.

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Snape Maltings concert hall where Twice Through the Heart was first performed

Twice Through the Heart is a musical work by the English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, variously described as a dramatic scena, as a monodrama, as a song cycle It is scored for mezzo-soprano and 16 instrumentalists and sets an English-language libretto by the Scottish poet Jackie Kay based on her script for a television programme. Originally intended to be a full-length opera, Twice was composed between 1994 and 1996, undergoing substantial reworking before Turnage found a form with which he was satisfied. It was first performed in 1997 when it was put on both in the concert hall and in the opera house. The critical reception has been generally favourable, with several authors commenting positively about the instrumental writing and emotional impact of the work, though some critics see limitations in the libretto or note the great demands that the vocal writing provides for the soloist.

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Head of Odysseus (Ulysses), from a 2nd century BC sculpture

Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (SV 325, The Return of Ulysses to his Homeland) is an opera in a prologue and five acts (later revised to three), set by Claudio Monteverdi to a libretto by Giacomo Badoaro. The opera was first performed at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice during the 1639–1640 carnival season. The story, taken from the second half of Homer's Odyssey, tells how constancy and virtue are ultimately rewarded, treachery and deception overcome. After his long journey home from the Trojan Wars Ulisse, king of Ithaca, finally returns to his kingdom where he finds that a trio of villainous suitors have seized the realm and are importuning his faithful queen, Penelope. With the assistance of the gods, his son Telemaco and a staunch friend Eumete, Ulisse vanquishes the suitors and recovers his kingdom. Il ritorno is the first of three full-length works which Monteverdi wrote for the burgeoning Venetian opera industry during the last five years of his life. Together with Monteverdi's other Venetian stage works, it is considered one of the first modern operas. Its music, while showing the influence of earlier works, also demonstrates Monteverdi's development as a composer of opera, through his use of fashionable forms such as arioso, duet and ensemble alongside the older-style recitative. By using a variety of musical styles, Monteverdi is able to express the feelings and emotions of a great range of characters, divine and human, through their music.

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Front cover of the original 1899 libretto

Tosca is an opera in three acts by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It premiered at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome on 14 January 1900. The work, based on Victorien Sardou's 1887 French-language dramatic play, La Tosca, is a melodramatic piece set in Rome in June 1800, with the Kingdom of Naples's control of Rome threatened by Napoleon's invasion of Italy. It depicts graphic scenes of torture, murder and suicide, yet it contains some of Puccini's best-known lyrical arias, and has inspired memorable performances from many of opera's leading singers. Puccini saw Sardou's play when it was touring Italy in 1889 and, after some vacillation, obtained the rights to turn the work into an opera in 1895. Turning the wordy French play into a succinct Italian opera took four years, during which the composer repeatedly argued with his librettists and publisher. While critics have frequently dismissed the opera as a facile melodrama with confusions of plot—musicologist Joseph Kerman famously called it a "shabby little shocker"—the power of its score and the inventiveness of its orchestration have been widely acknowledged. The dramatic force of Tosca and its characters continues to fascinate both performers and audiences, and the work remains one of the most frequently performed operas.

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Orpheus with his viol; a 17th century painting

L'Orfeo (SV 318), sometimes called L'Orfeo, favola in musica, is an early Baroque opera by Claudio Monteverdi, with a text by Alessandro Striggio. It is based on the Greek legend of Orpheus, and tells the story of his descent to Hades and his fruitless attempt to bring his dead bride Eurydice back to the living world. Written in 1607 for a court performance during the annual Carnival at Mantua, L'Orfeo is one of the earliest music dramas still regularly performed. Within the musical theatre at the beginning of the 17th century the traditional intermedio—a musical sequence between the acts of a straight play—was evolving into the form of a complete musical drama or "opera". Monteverdi's L'Orfeo moved this process out of its experimental era, and provided the first fully developed example within the new genre. After its initial performance the work was staged again in Mantua, and possibly in other Italian centres in the next few years. After the composer's death in 1643 the opera remained unperformed, and was largely forgotten until a revival of interest in the late 19th century led to a spate of modern editions and performances. At first these tended to be unstaged versions within institutes and music societies, but following the first modern dramatised performance in Paris, in 1911, the work was seen increasingly in theatres. In 2007 the quatercentenary of the premiere was celebrated by performances throughout the world.

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Schicchi original cover.jpg

Gianni Schicchi is a comic opera in one act by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Giovacchino Forzano, composed in 1917–18. The libretto is based on an incident mentioned in Dante's Divine Comedy. The work is the third and final part of Puccini's Il trittico—three one-act operas with contrasting themes, written to be presented together. Although it continues to be performed with one or both of the other trittico operas, Gianni Schicchi is now more frequently staged either alone or with short operas by other composers. When Il trittico premiered at New York's Metropolitan Opera in December 1918, Gianni Schicchi became an immediate hit, whereas the other two operas, Suor Angelica and Il tabarro were received with less enthusiasm. This pattern was broadly repeated at the Rome and London premieres and led to commercial pressures to abandon the less successful elements. Although on artistic grounds Puccini opposed performing the three operas except as the original triptych, by 1920 he had given his reluctant consent to separate performances. Gianni Schicchi has subsequently become the most-performed part of Il trittico, and has been widely recorded.

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Armida falls in love with Rinaldo, 1616 painting by Nicolas Poussin

Rinaldo (HWV 7) is an opera by George Frideric Handel composed in 1711, and was the first Italian language opera written specifically for the London stage. The libretto was prepared by Giacomo Rossi from a scenario provided by Aaron Hill, and the work was first performed at the Queen's Theatre in London's Haymarket on 24 February 1711. The story of love, battle and redemption set at the time of the First Crusade is loosely based on Torquato Tasso's epic poem Gerusalemme liberata ("Jerusalem Delivered"), and its staging involved many original and vivid effects. It was a great success with the public, despite negative reactions from literary critics hostile to the contemporary trend towards Italian entertainment in English theatres. The music for Rinaldo was composed very quickly. Much of it is made up of borrowings and adaptations from the operas and other works that Handel had composed during his long stay in Italy in 1706–10. In the years following the premiere, Handel frequently introduced new numbers, discarded others, and transposed parts to different voice ranges. Despite the lack of a standard edition, with its spectacular vocal and orchestral passages Rinaldo has been cited as one of Handel's greatest operas. Of its individual numbers the soprano aria "Lascia ch'io pianga" has become a particular favourite and is a popular concert piece.

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Richard Nixon (right) meets with Mao Zedong, February 1972

Nixon in China is an opera in three acts by John Adams, with a libretto by Alice Goodman. Adams' first opera, it was inspired by the 1972 visit to China by US President Richard Nixon. The work premiered at the Houston Grand Opera on October 22, 1987, in a production by Peter Sellars with choreography by Mark Morris. When Sellars approached Adams with the idea for the opera in 1985, Adams was initially reluctant, but eventually decided that the work could be a study in how myths come to be, and accepted the project. To create the sounds he sought, Adams augmented the orchestra with a large saxophone section, additional percussion, and electronic synthesizers. Although sometimes described as "minimalist", the score displays a variety of musical styles, embracing minimalism after the manner of Philip Glass alongside passages echoing 19th century composers such as Wagner and Johann Strauss. Following the 1987 premiere, the opera received mixed reviews; some critics dismissed the work, predicting it would soon vanish. However, it has been presented on many occasions since, in Europe as well as in North America, and has been recorded twice. In 2011, Nixon in China received its Metropolitan Opera debut, a production based on the original sets, and in the same year was given an abstract production in Toronto by the Canadian Opera Company. Recent critical opinion has tended to recognize the work as a significant and lasting contribution to American opera.

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The London Coliseum, home of English National Opera

English National Opera (ENO) is an opera company based in London, resident at the London Coliseum in St Martin's Lane. It is one of the two principal opera companies in London, along with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden. ENO's productions are sung in English. The company's origins were in the late 19th century, when the philanthropist Emma Cons, later assisted by her niece Lilian Baylis, presented theatrical and operatic performances at the Old Vic in a rough area of London for the benefit of local people. From those beginnings, Baylis built up both the opera and the theatre companies, and later added a ballet company; these evolved into the ENO, the Royal National Theatre and the Royal Ballet. Baylis acquired and rebuilt Sadler's Wells theatre in north London, a larger house, better suited to opera than the Old Vic. The opera company grew there into a permanent ensemble in the 1930s. During the Second World War, the theatre was closed and the company toured British towns and cities. After the war, the company returned to its home, but it continued to expand and improve, and by the 1960s a larger theatre was needed. In 1968, the company moved to the London Coliseum in the heart of London; in 1974 it adopted the name English National Opera (ENO). The company has survived several proposals to merge it with the Royal Opera.

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Illustration of Act 1 of Les pêcheurs de perles from the Italian premiere

Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers) is an opera in three acts by the French composer Georges Bizet, to a libretto by Eugène Cormon and Michel Carré. It was first performed on 30 September 1863 at the Théâtre Lyrique in Paris and was given 18 performances in its initial run. Set in ancient times on the island of Ceylon, the opera is a story of how two men's vow of eternal friendship is threatened by their love for the same woman, whose own dilemma is the conflict between secular love and her sacred oath as a priestess. The friendship duet "Au fond du temple saint", generally known as "The Pearl Fishers Duet", is one of the best-known numbers in Western opera. Despite a good reception by the public, press reactions to the work were generally hostile and dismissive, although other composers, notably Hector Berlioz, found considerable merit in the music. Modern critical opinion has been kinder than that of Bizet's day. Commentators describe the quality of the music as uneven and at times unoriginal, but acknowledge the opera as a work of promise in which Bizet's gifts for melody and evocative instrumentation are clearly evident. They have identified clear premonitions of the composer's genius which would culminate, 10 years later, in Carmen.

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Claudio Monteverdi

The Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567–1643), in addition to a large output of church music and madrigals, wrote prolifically for the stage. His theatrical works were written between 1604 and 1643 and included ten operas, of which three—L'Orfeo (1607), Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria (1640) and L'incoronazione di Poppea (1643)—have survived with their music and librettos intact. In the case of the other seven operas, the music has disappeared almost entirely, although some of the librettos exist. Most of the available information relating to Monteverdi's lost operas has been deduced from contemporary documents, including the many letters that he wrote. These papers provide irrefutable evidence that four of these works—L'Arianna, Andromeda, Proserpina rapita and Le nozze d'Enea in Lavinia—were completed and performed in Monteverdi's lifetime, but of their music, only the famous lament from L'Arianna, and a trio from Proserpina, are known to have survived. The other three lost operas—Le nozze di Tetide, La finta pazza Licori and Armida abbandonata—were abandoned by Monteverdi before completion. How much of their music was actually written is unknown.

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Composer Gavin Bryars playing the double bass

Doctor Ox's Experiment is an opera in two acts by Gavin Bryars (pictured). It has an English-language libretto by Blake Morrison after the novella of the same name by Jules Verne. It was first performed on 15 June 1998 at the London Coliseum by English National Opera (ENO) who co-commissioned the opera with BBC Television. In the experiment of the title, Doctor Ox introduces a gas into a sedate and conservative Flemish village with the result that everyone and everything becomes speeded up and chaotic. (Ox's and his assistant's names combine to make Oxygėne, the French name for Oxygen.) The opera explores the conflict between Ox's advocacy of modernity and scientific and political change and Ygène's belief that liberation and the accompanying loss of the traditional rhythms of life might bring unhappiness. The music is predominantly slow-moving and quiet. Bryars allocated distinct voice types to the different types of roles: town elders, young lovers and scientists. He also included some unusual instruments in his orchestra: an oboe d'amore and an amplified jazz bass in the love scene, an electronic keyboard and a flugelhorn instead of trumpets in the brass section. The reception was mixed with several critics complaining of boredom while others wrote of members of the audience being entranced by the music.

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Royal Opera House, London

The Royal Opera is a company based in central London, resident at the Royal Opera House (pictured) in Covent Garden. Along with the English National Opera, it is one of the two principal opera companies in London. Founded in 1946 as the Covent Garden Opera Company, it brought a long annual season and consistent management to a house that had previously hosted short seasons under a series of impresarios. Since its inception, it has shared the Royal Opera House with the dance company now known as the Royal Ballet. When the company was formed, its policy was to perform all works in English, but since the late 1950s most operas have been given in the original language. From the outset, performers have comprised a mixture of British and Commonwealth singers and international guest stars, but fostering the careers of singers from within the company was a consistent policy of the early years. Among the many guest performers have been Maria Callas, Plácido Domingo, Kirsten Flagstad, Hans Hotter, Birgit Nilsson, Luciano Pavarotti and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Among those who have risen to international prominence from the ranks of the company are Geraint Evans, Joan Sutherland, Kiri Te Kanawa and Jon Vickers. The company's growth under the management of David Webster from modest beginnings to parity with the world's greatest opera houses was recognised by the grant of the title "The Royal Opera" in 1968.

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Act 5 scene 1, with Levasseur, Nourrit, and Dorus-Gras

Robert le diable (Robert the Devil) is an opera by Giacomo Meyerbeer, regarded as one of the first grand operas. The libretto was written by Eugène Scribe and Casimir Delavigne and has only superficial connection to the medieval legend of Robert the Devil. The opera was immediately successful from its first night on 21 November 1831 at the Paris Opéra; the dramatic music, harmony and orchestration of Robert, its melodramatic plot, its star singers and its sensational stage effects compelled Frédéric Chopin, who was in the audience, to say "If ever magnificence was seen in the theatre, I doubt that it reached the level of splendour shown in Robert...It is a masterpiece...Meyerbeer has made himself immortal". Robert initiated the European fame of its composer, consolidated the fame of its librettist Scribe and launched the reputation of the new director of the Opéra, Louis-Désiré Véron, as a purveyor of a new genre of opera. It also had influence on development of the ballet, and was frequently mentioned and discussed in contemporary French literature. Robert continued as a favourite in opera houses all over the world throughout the nineteenth century. After a period of neglect, it began to be revived towards the end of the twentieth century.

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Théâtre des Nouveautés-Fatinitza-1879.jpg

Fatinitza was the first full-length, three-act operetta by Franz von Suppé. The libretto by F. Zell (a pseudonym for Camillo Walzel) and Richard Genée was based on the libretto to La circassienne by Eugène Scribe (which had been set to music by Daniel Auber in 1861) but with the lead role of Wladimir, a young Russian lieutenant who has to disguise himself as a woman named Fantinitza, changed to a trousers role; in other words, a woman played the part of the man who pretended to be a woman. It premièred on 5 January 1876, at the Carltheater Vienna with Antonie Link (1853-1931) in the title role and proved a huge success, running for more than a hundred performances, with the march "Vorwärts mit frischem Muth", proving a particular hit.

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Bacchus and Ariadne by Alessandro Turchi

L'Arianna (English: Ariadne) (SV 291), composed in 1607–08, was the second opera by the Italian composer Claudio Monteverdi. One of the earliest of the Baroque period and indeed of any operas, it was first performed on 28 May 1608, as part of the musical festivities for a royal wedding at the court of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga in Mantua. All the music is lost apart from the extended recitative known as "Lamento d'Arianna" ("Ariadne's Lament"). This fragment became a highly influential musical work and was widely imitated; the "expressive lament" became an integral feature of Italian opera for much of the 17th century. The libretto, which survives complete, was written in eight scenes by Ottavio Rinuccini, who used Ovid's Heroides and other classical sources to relate the story of Ariadne's abandonment by Theseus on the island of Naxos and her subsequent elevation as bride to the god Bacchus. The opera was composed under severe pressure of time; the composer later said that the effort of creating it almost killed him. The initial performance, produced with lavish and innovative special effects, was highly praised, and the work was equally well received in Venice when it was revived under the composer's direction in 1640 as the inaugural work for the Teatro San Moisè.

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Portrait of the castrato singer Senesino

"Va tacito e nascosto" ("Silently and stealthily") is an aria from George Frideric Handel's opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto, composed in 1724 to a libretto by Nicola Francesco Haym. It is set as a da capo aria and is sung by the character Julius Caesar in Act 1, Scene 9 of the opera. The aria is scored for strings and natural horn in F major and features extensive natural horn solos. The vocal part is written for the alto castrato voice and was sung at the premiere by the celebrated castrato Senesino (pictured). In modern productions it is often sung by a countertenor voice, but has been sung in productions and recordings by both males and females, in registers from bass to soprano. Handel's original draft of the first act prepared the aria for a different character. With a slightly variant text, it was allocated to Cleopatra's cousin Berenice, who urged Cleopatra to stalk Caesar like a crafty hunter to make him enamoured of her. The character of Berenice was subsequently deleted from the libretto.

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Wales Millennium Centre

Welsh National Opera (WNO) (Welsh: Opera Cenedlaethol Cymru) is an opera company based in Cardiff, Wales; it gave its first performances in 1946. The company began as a mainly amateur body and transformed into an all-professional ensemble by 1973. In its early days the company gave a single week's annual season in Cardiff, gradually extending its schedule to become an all-year-round operation, with its own salaried chorus and orchestra. It has been described by The New York Times as "one of the finest operatic ensembles in Europe". For most of its existence the company lacked a permanent base in Cardiff, but in 2004 it moved into the new Wales Millennium Centre (pictured). The company tours nationally and internationally, giving more than 120 performances annually, with a repertoire of eight operas each year, to a combined audience of more than 150,000 people. Its most frequent venues other than Cardiff are Llandudno in Wales and Bristol, Birmingham, Liverpool, Milton Keynes, Oxford, Plymouth, and Southampton in England. Singers who have been associated with the company include Geraint Evans, Thomas Allen, Anne Evans, and Bryn Terfel. Guest artists from other countries have included Joan Hammond, Tito Gobbi and Elisabeth Söderström.

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Mosaic of Noah in the Ark

Noye's Fludde is a one-act opera by the British composer Benjamin Britten, intended primarily for amateur performers, particularly children. First performed on 18 June 1958 at that year's Aldeburgh Festival, it is based on the 15th-century Chester "mystery" or "miracle" play which recounts the Old Testament story of Noah's Ark. Britten specified that the opera should be staged in churches or large halls, not in a theatre. At its premiere Noye's Fludde was acclaimed by critics and public alike, both for the inspiration of the music and the brilliance of the design and production. The opera received its American premiere in New York in March 1959, and its first German performance at Ettal in May of that year. Since then it has been staged worldwide. The performance in Beijing in October 2012 was the first in China of any Britten opera. The occasion of Britten's centenary in 2013 led to numerous productions at music festivals, both in the UK and abroad.

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Ambrogio Maestri as Falstaff, Vienna State Opera, 2016. Photographer: Christian Michelides

Falstaff is a comic opera in three acts by Giuseppe Verdi. The libretto was adapted by Arrigo Boito from Shakespeare's The Merry Wives of Windsor and scenes from Henry IV, parts 1 and 2. The work premiered on 9 February 1893 at La Scala, Milan. Verdi composed Falstaff, which was the last of his 28 operas, as he was approaching the age of 80. It was his second comedy, and his third work based on a Shakespeare play, following Macbeth and Otello. The plot revolves around the thwarted, sometimes farcical, efforts of the fat knight, Sir John Falstaff, to seduce two married women to gain access to their husbands' wealth. Verdi was concerned about working on a new opera at his advanced age, but he yearned to write a comic work and was pleased with Boito's draft libretto. It took the collaborators three years from mid-1889 to complete. Although the prospect of a new opera from Verdi aroused immense interest in Italy and around the world, Falstaff did not prove to be as popular as earlier works in the composer's canon. After the initial performances in Italy, other European countries and the US, the work was neglected until the conductor Arturo Toscanini insisted on its revival at La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera in New York from the late 1890s into the next century. The work is now part of the regular operatic repertory.

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George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner

In 1703, the 18-year-old composer George Frideric Handel took up residence in Hamburg, Germany, where he remained until 1706. During this period he composed four operas, only the first of which, Almira, has survived more or less intact. Of the three lost Hamburg operas, the music for Nero is lost, while only short orchestral excerpts from Florindo and Daphne survive. Handel was born and grew up in Halle, where he received his early musical education and became an accomplished organist. In Hamburg he obtained employment as a violinist at the Oper am Gänsemarkt, the city's famous opera house. Here, he learned the rudiments of opera composition, mainly under the influences of Reinhard Keiser, the theatre's music director, and Johann Mattheson, its leading vocalist. The Gänsemarkt was largely dedicated to Keiser's compositions; his temporary absence in 1704 gave Handel his chance, and in quick succession he wrote Almira and Nero using librettos by Friedrich Christian Feustking. Almira was successful, Nero less so and was never performed after its initial run of three performances. Handel's final Hamburg operas, Florindo and Daphne, based on librettos by Heinrich Hinsch and originally conceived as a giant single entity, were not produced at the Gänsemarkt before Handel left Hamburg for Italy in 1706.

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Poster for the world premiere of the expanded version in 1874

Orpheus in the Underworld is the English name for Orphée aux enfers, a comic opera composed by Jacques Offenbach to a libretto by Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy. It was first performed as a two-act "opéra bouffon" at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, Paris, on 21 October 1858, and was extensively revised and expanded in a four-act "opéra féerie" version, presented at the Théâtre de la Gaîté, Paris, on 7 February 1874. The opera is a lampoon of the ancient legend of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this version Orpheus is not the son of Apollo but a rustic violin teacher. He is glad to be rid of his wife, Eurydice, when she is abducted by the god of the underworld. Orpheus has to be bullied by Public Opinion into trying to rescue Eurydice. The reprehensible conduct of the gods of Olympus in the opera was widely seen as a veiled satire of the court and government of Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. Some critics expressed outrage at the librettists' disrespect for classic mythology and the composer's parody of Gluck's opera Orfeo ed Euridice; others praised the piece highly. In the late 19th century the Paris cabarets the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergère adopted the music of the "Galop infernal" from the opera's culminating scene to accompany the can-can, and ever since the tune has been popularly associated with the dance.


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